On Making Weight

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This week I built on my proud history of needling world-famous sports writers by exchanging tweets with Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring magazine and all-around good guy, who recently wrote a typically scholarly yet entertaining article on the topic of making weight.  This subject has been in the news a lot lately, as there have been several occasions where a fighter, usually but not invariably the “A”-side, has failed to achieve his target weight by the time of weigh-in.  Floyd Mayweather, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesár Chavez, Jr. have all been guilty of this.  In each case the culpable celebrity fatty has paid his opponent cash from his share of the purse: Floyd, for example, paid $600,000 to Juan Manuel Marquez in return for being allowed to weigh in two pounds over the limit.

Of course, in a fight the odd pound doesn’t matter.  The issue is the impact on the body of making weight in the first place.  Fighters struggle and sweat hard to lose the weight, mainly by dehydration, and the last couple of pounds are inevitably much the hardest.  So if one fighter makes the effort and the other doesn’t the latter will likely recover from the effort much more quickly, giving him a physical advantage.  He will also have got away with it, potentially giving him a psychological advantage.  Theoretically his opponent could refuse to fight and have the whole thing called off: but after months of training, and possibly a lifetime of preparation for a unique opportunity (e.g., to fight Mayweather), at the risk of being called a ducker, and under pressure from all the interested parties (promoters, broadcasters, managers, fighters on the undercard, and so on) who is going to do that?  Big-name fighters like Mayweather and Chavez know this perfectly well, and are clearly taking unfair advantage.

So, bad things happen before the weigh-in.  But equally bad things happen thereafter.  Some fighters add enormous amounts of weight, 15lb or more, in the 24 hours between the weigh-in and the actual fight.  (Some fighters specialize in it: Chavez reputedly comes in at as much as 180lbs for the fight despite fighting in the 160lb middleweight division.)  Size isn’t everything, but this amount, much more than “the odd pound”, potentially can give a fighter a big advantage in the ring.

And some combine the offences.  In a case already discussed on this blog Orlando Salido weighed in for his recent featherweight fight with Vasyl Lomachenko more than two pounds over the contracted 126lbs, then gained an amazing nineteen further pounds by the time of the fight, making him in reality a welterweight, four whole weight classes higher, and meaning that by the time he entered the ring his bodyweight was one-sixth higher than the featherweight “limit” at which he had agreed to fight[1].

This sort of carry-on undermines the whole point of weight limits, which is to ensure that fighters are physically fairly matched, and that the fight is decided by performance rather than poundage.  More importantly, dehydrating then rehydrating the body – the principal means of losing then gaining weight rapidly – is dangerous at the best of times, never mind the day before volunteering to get repeatedly punched in the head.  As with most of the safety aspects of boxing, objective scientific evidence is dismayingly hard to come by, but it seems possible that such drastic weight loss and gain may contribute materially to the risk of brain injury.  Certainly, it is noteworthy that heavyweights, who punch (and so receive punches) hardest, but who do not have to make weight, appear to suffer fewer serious injuries or deaths in the ring than lighter fighters (though anecdotally they do seem to be particularly prone to longer-term issues like Parkinson’s, dementia pugilistica, frontal lobe syndrome and so on).

So what is to be done?  Part of the problem lies in the decision to move the weigh-in to the day before the fight.  This was intended to make things safer,  but as usual with boxing, this doesn’t seem to have been thought through all that carefully.   After all, the longer you have to recover, the more you are going to try to “boil down” to a weight that doesn’t really suit your physique.

Nigel Collins suggests we go back to the old way of doing things, namely, weigh-ins on the day of the fight.  This might stop fighters adding back quite so much weight between weigh-in and fight, but it doesn’t seem to me to address the safety problem: we’ll still have people sweating hard to get the last pounds off.  Here’s the conversation:

Nigel Collins ‏@ESPNFNF  Mar 13

@DabberMatt Less is more. Make weight on the day of the fight. It’s simple and honors the concept of weight classes.

 Matthew Bailey ‏@DabberMatt  Mar 13

@ESPNFNF But the aim is to match fighters by weight, not lead to a dangerous weight-loss & gain contest. Regular weighing is simple & fair.

Nigel Collins ‏@ESPNFNF  Mar 13

@DabberMatt We disagree.

We certainly do, though in the most civil of terms[2].

Enough namedropping: here’s what I think.  With the greatest of respect to Nigel Collins, here less is not more.  To me, the problem lies with the very idea of “the” weigh-in, that is, with only having one.  Instead, for a contracted period before the fight, say four to six weeks, the fighters should be weighed regularly – for big fights, maybe even daily.  Over this period they have to stay within some reasonable margin over the contracted weight for the fight (somewhere around five per cent of bodyweight is probably about right).  Then they are weighed on the day of the fight, when they actually do have to make weight.  This would ensure that the guys fighting at the given weight are, normally, round about that weight – which, to me, “honours the concept of weight classes” much better than a once-and-for-all last-minute check.  It would mean no more massive dehydration and rehydration (and consequent weight loss and gain) before a fight.  And if a fighter is clearly not going to make the weight, he can be warned, sanctioned and even disqualified well in advance, helping to avoid the dilemmas of a possible last-minute cancellation.

Secondly – and I know this will be unpopular – it is clearly time to consider changing the weight classes.  People are generally significantly bigger and heavier now than they were a century and a half ago, when the original classification was introduced.  The average adult male in the UK now weighs about 85kg[3], making him a cruiserweight.  His counterpart from 1870 was 70kg[4], just barely a middleweight (as one might intuitively expect for the average or “middling” man).  And there are precedents: Olympic weightlifting has changed its weight classes numerous times to reflect exactly this phenomenon, with the heaviest class having changed from over 82.5kg between 1920-48 to over 105kg today.

Finally, it seems to me that this is yet another reason to lament boxing’s complete and utter lack of a central governing body with a responsibility for fighter safety.  This isn’t just a technical debate, nor can it satisfactorily be solved with money.  Most importantly, for the fighters, there is a lot more at stake than “honouring a concept”.


[1] Lomachenko gained weight before fighting too, but was still about 12lbs lighter than his opponent on entering the ring.

[2] David Walsh could learn a thing or two from this exchange.

[4] http://www.nber.org/papers/h0108.pdf?new_window=1 – p.35.  Figure given is for males, 36-40.

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Book Review – The Last Great Fight, by Joe Layden

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Anyone who enjoys boxing has to ask himself a number of questions.  One is whether or not it is really a sport.  Another is whether it should even be permitted.

But the most personal and pressing of all is this: why do I like it?  In my case there are three reasons.

Firstly, while boxing is a deeply dirty business, it possesses an unmatched and redemptive purity.  Thrown fights, bent promoters, destitute, brain-damaged fighters, absurd scorecards, performance-enhancing drugs, loaded gloves, and so on, and so on: all is forgiven and forgotten when boxing hits its frequent peaks.  Bringing acute danger, requiring perfect focus, for both participant and observer fighting at its best is transcendent in its intensity.

Secondly, I have always been fascinated by places where the normal rules of civilized society simply don’t apply.  The ropes of a boxing ring effectively demarcate another dimension, outside our reality: once they pass into it, two men quite legitimately attempt to incapacitate each other, and if one dies, as sometimes happens, the other is not culpable.  What could be more dramatic than that?

Finally, while I like boxing, I love reading.  It is widely accepted, quite correctly in my view, that the quality of writing about boxing far exceeds anything else available in the sports section.  Nothing beats a great fight story.

On all three counts, Joe Layden’s The Last Great Fight, telling the story of James “Buster” Douglas’s astonishing defeat of Mike Tyson, has a lot going for it.

Firstly, no fighter has ever embodied boxing’s purity and intensity better than the young Mike Tyson.  Self-conscious about his place in boxing’s history, which he had studied closely under mentor Cus D’Amato, he chose a deliberately timeless appearance – black trunks and boots, short back and sides, no gown, no tassels, not even a pair of socks.  Then he scared his opponents half out of their wits before the bell, and knocked them out of the remainder a few seconds later.

Further, it is hard to think of another public figure, even another fighter, who lived so far outside civilized society, and who belonged so obviously in that “other dimension”, as did Tyson.  Raised in a ghetto by an alcoholic single mother, he was fighting grown men for money at 11 years old.  A childhood consisting almost exclusively of crime took him into the penal system, where he and boxing discovered each other.  An early coach passed him onto D’Amato, who, seeing in Tyson the possibility of revenge over his many enemies, explicitly trained the boy to be an “antisocial champion”. D’Amato was the first, but not the last, to have an interest in making of Tyson a barely human fighting machine.  Along the way others tried to do the right thing, but they stood no chance against the reptiles of the boxing world.  Joan Morgan is surely right to say that Tyson’s life was filled with “nothing but opportunistic motherfuckers from D’Amato to [Don] King who claimed to love him yet allowed him to remain sick and uneducated for the sake of riding a $100million gravy train”.  And Tyson also repeatedly found new ways of putting himself yet further beyond the pale, from getting a facial tattoo, to converting (if less than convincingly) to Islam, to biting lumps out of Evander Holyfield’s ears, to (most notoriously) being convicted for the rape of Desiree Washington.

Finally, James Layden has taken on one of boxing’s great stories: namely, how a little-known, unfancied fighter outfought and finally knocked out the so-called “baddest man on the planet”.  The consequences of this momentous, astonishing outcome are still felt in boxing today.  As Tyson’s former trainer Kevin Rooney put it, “since Tyson lost to Douglas, nobody has cared about boxing, other than the hardcore boxing fan.  That was the beginning of the end.”

It certainly was for Tyson.  He won big fights after his loss to Douglas, but he was never the same, especially after his time in prison.  To an extent, of course, decline comes to all fighters: the interesting issue in this case is that hardly any boxer’s reputation has been as badly affected as Tyson’s by the defeats he suffered later in his career after his loss to Douglas.  Conversely, and ironically, the reputations of those who defeated the older, unrated Mike Tyson lean heavily on those very defeats.  Thus, in 1998 The Ring Magazine put Tyson at just 14th on the list of all-time great heavyweights, while Evander Holyfield (who first beat Tyson in 1996) made third place.  The elevated assessment enjoyed by Lennox Lewis, the last undisputed heavyweight champion, rests at least in part on his victory over an exhausted, ageing, dispirited, out of shape Tyson.  (Note that Lewis, the last Undisputed Heavyweight Champion, was the victim of two upsets, at the hands of Oliver McCall and the almost-unknown Hasim Rahman, but no one is writing books about those events twenty years later.)   Yet the downgrading of Tyson’s achievements continues today, with one of the biggest sports websites in the world calling him the most overrated fighter of all time.[1]

There are a number of reasons why his reputation has fallen so low.  Tyson having been rated so highly – he often appeared on “pound-for-pound” lists, a rarity for heavyweights – it is possible that opinion simply overshot in the other direction once the myth of his invincibility was exposed.  What’s more, besides losing high-profile fights that the younger Tyson would have won, he fought more and more dirtily, culminating in his disgraceful behaviour in the second fight against Holyfield.  His behaviour outside the ring was, if anything, worse: drinking and driving, fighting people in the street, and treating every woman he met as no more or less than a potential conquest (the fact that so many of these women concurred so enthusiastically is no defence).

All of this made him pretty hard to like (a sentiment with which today’s Tyson would agree), but should really have no bearing on his ranking as a fighter.  But there’s another issue.  Hardcore fans don’t like uneducated part-timers deciding who is good and who isn’t, so they sneer at popular fighters, particularly ones with a spectacularly violent, pleb-pleasing style.

But sometimes the public is right regardless of their technical expertise.  Mozart was wildly popular (although it wasn’t only the purported philistine Joseph II who complained of “too many notes”). Bobby Fischer[2] was treated like a rock star.  Tyson was no Bobby Fischer and certainly no Mozart, but all three had this in common (besides being child prodigies in one way or another): they were the real thing, and everyone could see it.  That’s what I call a musical genius: that’s what I call a Grandmaster: and that’s what I call the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  It was this, I suggest, that gave rise to the extraordinary public and media fascination with Tyson and his private life.  Among public figures generally, only Ali can really compete for global recognition (Tyson was mobbed in places as exotic as Chechnya just as he was in Japan or the UK), and Ali, unlike Tyson, had the advantages of looks, wit, charm and sheer showmanship as well as talent and charisma.  Tyson captured the public imagination in an entirely different way.

At any rate, this revisionism has given rise to a number of myths, which are worth examining.

MYTH #1: Tyson was a one-dimensional brawler, who couldn’t adapt his style

Tyson could certainly brawl when the occasion called for it, and he invariably started a fight with extreme aggression, clearly seeking, and often achieving, an immediate knockout.  But on the equally many occasions when this did not work he had many other strengths to call upon.  The young Tyson possessed a blend of speed, agility and balance that allowed him to deliver combinations of breath-taking power and effectiveness.  He also maintained an impeccable defence.  Everyone notes how Tyson held his hands in front of his face in D’Amato’s “peek-a-boo” style, but commentators rarely mention Tyson’s ability to slip a punch, perhaps because he could do it without disruption to his offensive rhythm: consider the way he knocks out Carl Williams, in a single instantaneous motion deftly avoiding a left, settling his weight, and launching a blow that lifted the unprotected Williams off his feet.  Observe also his extraordinary upper body movement against Trevor Berbick, who hardly lays a glove on Tyson, even while Tyson is hammering him at will.

(Tyson is not the only fighter whose all-round athleticism is underappreciated.  One reason for this is that, unlike basketball, track and field or soccer, boxing is not well suited to the use of slow-motion replays.  During a live round such replays are impossible, but even between rounds there is so much going on in the fighters’ corners, and so much potential for drama, that there is barely time to review more than a couple of seconds’ worth of action.)

Tyson was also a thinking fighter. Both Tyrell Biggs and Tony Tucker started strongly against Tyson, Biggs dodging, dancing and jabbing, Tucker brawling back and showing good movement, and both men tying Tyson up whenever he looked like getting inside.  But in the second round of both fights Tyson slowed the pace and focused on throwing jabs and body shots, always maintaining his forward motion, refusing to be frustrated, and ultimately wearing his opponents down to nothing.  Others including ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith & Mitch Green did a better job of tying Tyson up, ultimately going the distance, but Tyson again focused on maintaining his momentum & movement and using his superior technique and conditioning to outbox his opponent decisively.

MYTH #2: Tyson had trouble with taller fighters.

Tyson, while certainly a natural heavyweight, was only 5’10” or so (though his given height was always 5’11½”), and therefore always fighting taller fighters.  For a short man, always at a reach disadvantage, he had an extremely effective jab, which he used as a weapon in its own right, in combination with hooks, and – of course – as a tool to back fighters up and get inside, where he could do such damage with his uppercut.  He also developed the counterintuitive strategy of ducking out of reach of taller fighters, making himself even smaller, before coiling and then launching himself, his smooth glistening form relentlessly diving and surfacing as well as weaving from side to side.  The left hand that knocks down Alfonso Ratliff, for example, seems to come from floor level.  Partly for this reason, he in fact performed well against taller fighters, notably Biggs (then-undefeated Olympic superheavyweight gold medallist), Tucker and Larry Holmes.

MYTH #3: The young Tyson always fought bums: whenever he fought anyone any good, they “gave him trouble”

Like every prospect, at the start of his career Tyson fought lesser names.  Less common was the ease and relish with which he dispatched them (in his first 16 fights he fought just 23 rounds, and only 8 of them complete, for a total of just 41 minutes and 21 seconds).  When he started meeting a better class of competition, it sometimes – though only sometimes – took longer.  In fact, the heavyweight division contained some solid competition back then.  Biggs, Tucker, Tubbs, Thomas, Berbick, Spinks, Smith, Bruno and Williams may not bear comparison with Ali, Frazier and Foreman but most of them would have been competitive against any other generation of heavyweights[3], and certainly compare favourably with today’s (and, for what it is worth, they had plenty of titles and Olympic medals between them).  It seems to me that, much as the reputations of Lewis and Holyfield in particular have been enhanced by beating the later Tyson, the reputations of many of these fighters have been diminished by the way the younger Tyson crushed them.  At any rate, taken together they presented a range of different challenges: Tyson rose to all of them.

All this material on Tyson is, or should be, familiar to any fight enthusiast: Layden does a good job of setting it all out, albeit without really adding anything to our understanding of Tyson the fighter, the man, or the hypercelebrity.  His sections on the less well-known Douglas, however, are equally good, and therefore unsurprisingly more informative and more enjoyable.

The young Buster was a gifted athlete with an ambivalent attitude to boxing – he appears to have effectively given up, or lost interest, in at least two of his early fights.  His career proceeded in fits and starts, a couple of wins, sometimes good ones, being followed by a disappointing defeat.  The explanation for this pattern of great promise followed by frustrating capitulation appears to lie in the conflict within Douglas’s support team, comprised initially of his father, redoubtable middleweight Bill “Dynamite” Douglas, his mother’s brother J.D. McCauley and manager John Johnson.  These three appear to have spent more time arguing with each other than training their fighter.

One hot streak led to his first title shot against Tony Tucker.  In camp, Bill and J.D. set about each other with golf clubs, and in the fight Buster again appeared to give up after being ahead.  After this debacle, Douglas finally sacked his father, won another string of fights, this time beating some genuinely highly-rated opponents (including Oliver McCall and Trevor Berbick), and finally set up his fateful meeting with Tyson.

Layden’s treatment of the fight itself is detailed, but is lacking in two important respects.  Firstly, it tiptoes too cautiously around the dirty side of the fight, and Douglas’s persistent fouling in particular.  Layden fails to question John Russell, who was originally brought in as cut man for the Tyson fight though it appears he took on a much bigger role as trainer, when he makes the absurd statement that Tyson “hit James in the second round, with an elbow or something dirty, and Buster gave it right back to him, and [Tyson] never did it again in the fight.  That, to me, was the turning point.”  On the contrary: as the fight went on, Tyson continued to do “something dirty” at every opportunity, repeatedly banging Douglas with his elbows, his forearms and particularly his head[4].  It is absolute nonsense to suggest Mike Tyson would be put off fighting dirty just because someone did it back to him.  In reality, Tyson was always a dirty fighter, and referees – perhaps because he was such a star – let him get away with it as a matter of course.  Douglas was smart enough to realize this, and to turn the tables on Tyson, throwing his left elbow and punching on the break as early as the first round.  After all, if referees were not going to stop Tyson fighting dirty, they could hardly do the same to his opponents (Evander Holyfield would later draw the same conclusion, using repeated head-butts to drive Tyson literally crazy).

Secondly, Layden never really answers the most important question of all: just how did Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson?  The book sets out the usual list of purported reasons for Tyson’s defeat, again without really adding to our knowledge or understanding.  So, Tyson had lost two father figures in D’Amato and his manager Jim Jacobs, and had parted with his long-term trainer Kevin Rooney.  His marriage to Robin Givens had ended in a traumatic divorce.  His corner displayed comical ineptitude during the fight, and had failed to persuade Tyson to do much by way of training beforehand (unless you count shagging Japanese cleaning ladies).

But Layden, like so many other commentators, fails to point out that some or all of these factors applied before many of Tyson’s other fights.  Tyson may not have done much training for the Douglas fight but he certainly looked pretty good – I wish I could get that “out of shape” – and while he did tire as the fight went on he was still fighting in the tenth round, and managed a tremendous knockdown at the end of the eighth.   Tyson’s marriage was falling apart throughout 1988, but that didn’t stop him brutalizing Larry Holmes (in four rounds), Tony Tubbs (in two), Michael Spinks (in one), Frank Bruno (in five) or Carl Williams (one again).   Similarly, Tyson was so disillusioned in the period leading up to the Tony Tucker fight that he abandoned training and announced his retirement before having the financial consequences explained to him.  During an interview with Jerry Izenberg before the Spinks fight (which lasted 91 seconds) Tyson burst into tears while discussing D’Amato.   And while his corner was worse than useless in the Douglas fight, the same personnel were there when he battered Bruno and Williams.

What is more, while surveying this array of dubiously explanatory “reasons” for Tyson’s loss, it is hard not to be struck by the way that the same commentators who blame Tyson’s loss on his personal problems cite Douglas’s very similar problems as reasons for his win.  While Tyson had lost D’Amato and Jacobs, Douglas’s mother famously died while he was training for the fight. At the same time the mother of his son was very seriously ill.  Like Tyson, Douglas had recently separated from his partner.  And while Tyson may or may not have been out of shape, on the day of their fight Douglas was certainly suffering from a heavy cold.

These issues exemplify a recurring flaw in this otherwise excellent book.  Layden’s approach is generally journalistic, usually attempting no more than to set out the facts for (presumably) the reader to make up his own mind.  But in the face of such a huge upset, just “setting out the facts” seems inadequate.  Beating Tyson was boxing’s equivalent of running the four minute mile.  Focusing on the personal issues of the two fighters – and what boxer’s life is not in perpetual chaos? – means Layden, like so many others, simply understates Douglas’s achievement.

So how did he do it?  In fact, Layden does mention both key factors.  In the first place, Douglas had developed the right strategy.  He didn’t run, like Biggs and Tucker did.  Nor did he make Berbick’s fatal error of attempting to stand toe to toe with Tyson.  He jabbed, with tremendous power and accuracy.  He followed up with accurate, powerful combinations (on the TV broadcast Jim Lampley refers repeatedly to Douglas’s “right hand leads”, but many of these look to me more like the second half of the old one-two, following a firm left).  He evaded punches with sideways movement, turning Tyson around and preventing him from getting planted enough to throw his most powerful shots.   And then – again and again – he stepped back in for more.    In other words, he put on an exhibition of high-class boxing.

Equally importantly, he was perfectly focused and confident.  Douglas himself says “it wasn’t like I thought, Oh good, [Tyson]’s not ready; maybe I’ll  have a chance.  I was just ready.[5]”  This isn’t just bravado, or post-fight rationalization.  The main evidence for its truth is, of course, Douglas’s win, since no one could have beaten Tyson without complete self-belief.  But Douglas’s “readiness” is also totally obvious in his pre-fight body language.  Most of Tyson’s opponents before Douglas look terrified – some terrified-but-determined, but others just scared witless.  Spinks and Berbick in particular were clearly beaten before they even entered the ring.  Douglas, by contrast, bounces on the balls of his feet and rolls his neck and shoulders: nervous, perhaps, but he’s there to fight.

It also cannot be denied that Tyson was not his usual self.  Perhaps he was distracted by his personal problems, though again, it is hard to think of a reason why that might be truer here than in other fights.  Perhaps he was thinking ahead to the already-mooted fight with Evander Holyfield, which promised to be a huge payday.   Certainly, before the fight, he doesn’t look as if he particularly wanted to be there.  Quite the irony, again: Buster Douglas, renowned quitter, raring to go; and Mike Tyson, the human fighting machine, not really feeling like it.  From the opening seconds to the moment in the tenth when a crushing uppercut and rhythymic volley of vicious hooks leave Tyson on his knees, scrabbling pathetically for his mouthguard, Douglas is so far on top that a viewer who didn’t know who was who (and who turned the TV commentary off) would never guess who was the champion and who was the challenger.  The fact that one judge had the fight even at 86-86, and one had Tyson ahead 87-86, only confirms what we already knew about the preposterous way boxing is scored.

Layden’s account of Douglas’s life after the fight is as fascinating as any car crash.  Tyson later reported that whenever he watched footage of the fight, as Douglas repeatedly battered him with heavy, accurate punches, he shouted at the screen “Duck, dummy!”.  Throughout this latter part of the book, one wants to scream something similar at Douglas.  Layden describes, in painful detail, Douglas’s utter misery during his time as champion: suffering chronic homesickness while being taken on money-spinning tours of the nation by his party-loving manager; spending less time training than in negotiating terms with the odious Don King; losing his title in one more pathetic capitulation, this time to Evander Holyfield; ballooning to almost 400 pounds and the edge of diabetic coma, before making a typically half-hearted comeback and then slipping out of the limelight, winding up back in his hometown – cheeringly, and unusually, still in possession of his good humour, his marbles and at least some of his money.

However, this part of the book suffers from a different version of the same flaw discussed above.  It is obvious that Layden spent a lot of time with Douglas and Russell: it is equally obvious from his overindulgence of Douglas’s great and many weakness during this last period that he has great affection for the man.  Just as Layden’s non-judgmental, fact-stating style diminishes Douglas’s achievement in the fight, it masks his failings thereafter.  In this regard, it may be worth noting that Layden specializes in ghost-writing celebrity memoirs: much of this part of the book has the feel of a “Life-Of, As-Told-To . . .”.  If nothing else, however, Layden makes one thing abundantly clear: Buster Douglas was up to beating Mike Tyson, but he wasn’t up to being the Man Who Beat Mike Tyson, nor to being Heavyweight Champion of the World.


[2] The parallels between Fischer and Tyson are intriguing.  Both were from Brooklyn; there are questions about the paternity of both (and neither bears the name of his real father); both were brought up by a distant mother (Tyson’s due to alcoholism, Fischer’s due to an obsession with medical education); both became very fussy about their appearance after being mocked as children; and so on.  Fischer even once threatened, Ali-style, to beat an opponent in 24 moves (he in fact took 25).  Tyson once said “I just want to conquer people and their souls”: Fischer’s most famous line is “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego”.

[3] Another way of making the same point is this: Joe Louis is routinely described as the greatest heavyweight of all time.  How many of the fighters he beat can you name?

[4] Like many other commentators, Layden remarks on the way Tyson’s cornerman, Aaron Snowell, repeatedly whispers in his fighter’s ear between rounds, but does not consider the obvious possibility that he was transmitting “advice” that he’d rather not share with the TV microphones (or the judges).

[5] P.90

On Titles

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Everyone who follows boxing knows that there used to be just eight “world champions”, one for each of the original weight classes.  And everyone also knows that there are now seventeen weight classes and four major “sanctioning bodies” (plus a number of minor ones), dishing out not only “world titles”, but also a lot of other belts that bring some purported distinction short of (or in some cases apparently superior to[1]) “world champion” status – so now we have silver, diamond, international, intercontinental, supreme, and super champion titles, to name just a few.

There being so many of them, and so many of them being meaningless, one might fairly ask why fighters are so obsessed with titles.  I have suggested a couple of possibilities in previous entries on this blog.  For one thing, many people (wrongly) believe that a fighter in possession of a title deserves special treatment by judges; and for another, fighters like to have something, however meaningless, to fight over.  But there are at least a couple more reasons.

One is expressed in the old cliché that titles, like Olympic medals, “can’t be taken away from you”: a consideration which is perhaps less trite in the case of fighters, from whom everything but their titles (including their money, their self-esteem and their higher cognitive functions) invariably is taken away.  I am sure that fighters love titles at least in part because for the rest of their lives, wherever they turn up, they will be introduced as “former World Champion . . .”.  Quite apart from the boost to the ego, this means a lot when they are competing with other has-beens for gigs “greeting” the punters at third-rate casinos, speaking on the after-dinner circuit and opening supermarkets, where most of the audience won’t even know that there are dozens of “champions” at any one time.

Another, probably the most commonly cited, is that more money can be made from the public when a title is at stake.   Certainly, title fights, and fights between boxers who are highly rated by the sanctioning bodies, are likeliest to be staged at the biggest venues, and most importantly, to be shown on television.  But it is hard to see why fighters, or anyone outside the sanctioning bodies, could see this an argument in favour of the present system.  All that follows is that titles put economic power in the hands of the unaccountable, unregulated sanctioning bodies, which only creates greater possibilities for patronage and corruption.

The grounds for naming a “champion” are usually straightforward, since if a challenger beats the titleholder, he takes over: but what is less clear is how challengers are decided.  All the sanctioning bodies produce “rankings” of fighters, determining who is eligible to fight for the title, and in the case of the fighter ranked No.1 behind the champion, who the champion has to fight to retain his standing.  But the process for coming up with such rankings is entirely opaque.  What’s more, different sanctioning bodies have historically been closer to particular promoters or fighters than others[2], undermining whatever objectivity the rankings may otherwise have.  It barely needs mentioning that each of these titles attracts a generous “sanctioning fee”, payable to the relevant sanctioning body or bodies[3].

The Ring magazine attempted to cut through all this opacity and complexity by developing its own titles and rankings, based on strict, objective, transparent criteria, and (perhaps most importantly) involving the payment of no fees.  The credibility of this process, and indeed that of the entire previously-venerated publication, went up in a puff of smoke in 2011 when the original editorial staff of the magazine were fired by Golden Boy Promotions (owners of The Ring since 2007), suspiciously large numbers of whose fighters subsequently began appearing at or near the top of the rankings[4].

This whole grubby charade was illuminated by a remark made recently by Mauricio Sulaimán, head of the WBC, following his organisation’s curious decision to elevate Julio Cesar Chavez, Jnr. to number one contender at super middleweight, despite his never having fought at that weight, and despite the fact that there are very many other fighters with an ostensibly superior claim.  Sulaimán explained it thus[5]:  “The ranking’s sole purpose is to list those fighters eligible to fight for the WBC title. It is not a popularity contest, it is not a way of saying who is best in the division” (emphasis added).

Just think about that for a moment.  The WBC rankings are not a way of deciding who is the best boxer, only who is eligible to fight for a title.  For “eligible to fight for a title”, it is pretty clear we may simply read “willing to pay a sanctioning fee in the near future.”  Otherwise, why would all the sanctioning bodies exclude from their rankings any fighter who holds or who has committed to fight for a title from another such body?  After all, anothing sanctioning body’s champion and designated challenger are, prima facie, more than likely to be among the best fighters in the weight class.  But as Sulaimán puts it, “if George Groves states his intention to fight for another championship [i.e., the title of another sanctioning body], we cannot retain his ranking because he is busy for three to six months and he holds up other fighters who are eligible”.

This approach is not restricted to the WBC.  Compare this, from the WBA’s rules:  “Ratings represent the best opinion of the Association as to the relative qualification of the boxers in particular weight categories at a particular time and who are available and willing to fight for the Association’s title”. Note that ratings are based on “opinion”, not objective criteria, and “qualification” is not defined.  More importantly, however, “[t]he Committee may demote or remove a boxer from the ratings based on any relevant factor, including . . . failure to pay or allow to be paid sanction fees.”

The IBF apparently represents an improvement in explicitly stating that ratings “must be based solely on win/loss records, level of competition, [and] activity”.  However, they are also subject to “a boxer’s adherence to IBF/USBA rules and regulations”, which of course includes payment of sanctioning fees.  What is more, again, “[b]oxers that contract to fight for other world titles shall be considered unavailable and will be removed from the rankings”.  And, wouldn’t you just know it, “[a]ll ratings criteria are subject to exception by approval of the Ratings Committee.”

My personal favourite criterion for deciding on a mandatory challenger, however, comes from the WBO, who insist that, inter alia, “[i]n the event that the Champion has a contract with a major television network (HBO, SHOWTIME, ZDF, Sky or other similar broadcast company)”, the mandatory challenger must be “an acceptable challenger to the Champion’s television network”.

So the rankings of the sanctioning bodies are nothing like those of The Ring‘s old system.   In no case is ownership of either a sanctioning body’s title or the right to challenge the titleholder based solely on a fighter’s merits as a fighter.  This being so, what is the point of the ranking?  And therefore, what is the point of the title?

One final thing.  The spirit of The Ring’s original ranking system lives on, in the form of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org/), who are hereby appointed Official Rankings Provider to The Rumpus Compass.  We bestow this honour on the basis that . .

  1. Their rankings are at least rankings (i.e., an attempt to rank fighters by how good they are) rather than whatever it is the alphabets produce;
  2. The rankings look more or less right;
  3. They are a great bunch of guys (one member of the committee is our favourite “Jewish collegeboy”, podcaster Eric Raskin)
  4. We have a soft spot for plucky no-hopers; and
  5. Any organisation with a name as bad as “The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board” can only be in it for the right reasons.

[1] From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Boxing_Association): “The WBA recognizes the title holders from the WBC, WBO, and IBF organizations. The WBA refers to a champion who holds two or more of these titles in the same weight class as an “undisputed champion” or “super champion”. This applies even if the WBA title is not one of the titles held by the “undisputed champion”.

If a fighter with multiple titles holds the WBA’s title as well, the fighter is promoted to “Super Champion” and the WBA title becomes vacant for competition by other WBA-ranked boxers. As a result, the WBA tables will sometimes show a “WBA Super World Champion” and a “WBA World Champion” for the same weight class, instead of “WBA Champion”.

A WBA champion may be promoted to “Super Champion” without winning another organization’s title . . . The WBA will promote their titlist to a “Super” champion when he successfully defends his title five times.”

[2] Most famously, for many years the WBC was accused of taking orders from Don King.  Also, Bob Arum went on record to admit that he had bribed senior officials at the WBA, and when Bob Lee of the IBF was jailed on numerous counts of racketeering the names of both Arum and King were mentioned in court.

[3] The old joke that WBA stands for “we be askin’”, and WBC for “we be collectin’” is too good to omit.  Readers are invited to submit their own suggestions for “IBF” and “WBO”.

[4] Allegedly.  Readers interested in events surrounding this episode are directed to Ivan Goldman’s discussion of it at http://www.cjr.org/feature/the_ring_is_counted_out.php?page=all.  Having read Goldman’s article, you may feel the urge to enjoy again what Manny Pacquiao did to Oscar de la Hoya: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-8zGw-1YAM.

On Losing One’s ‘0’

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Obviously, a fighter can suffer a loss for any number of reasons.  He can be sick: he can be the victim of boxing’s absurd scoring “system”, like Amir Khan against Lamont Peterson (Khan lost two points for fouling): he can be robbed by a questionable decision, especially if he fights a popular fighter on his home turf (again, like Khan against Peterson, as well as a million others): he can bounce his opponent around the ring like a basketball for round after round, then get flattened by a single punch (as Herol Graham did by Julian Jackson): a panicking referee can make a bogus stoppage (like the one Howard Foster inflicted on George Groves against Carl Froch): he could come up against a fighter on performance-enhancing drugs (as, er, Amir Khan did in Lamont Peterson): or he can just have a bad night, like any sportsman.  I saw Rafael Nadal play Djokovic in the ATP World Tour Finals in 2013, and for the first twenty minutes Nadal could hardly keep it on the island, losing his first two service games.

Equally obviously, it is important how many losses a fighter has, and what the rest of his resumé looks like.  A fighter with five losses to high-quality competition but sixty-odd wins is different than one who is 5-5.  But, like other statistics in boxing, a winning record only points in a certain direction.  We have to use our judgement to make sense of it.  The reality is that a fighter’s having a handful of losses in an otherwise successful career just makes him more interesting.  Even leaving aside the nonsensical way in which boxing is scored, there is always a story behind every one of a top fighter’s losses, and (perhaps more importantly) behind his response to those losses.

To me, there is no question that Vasyl Lomachenko’s loss to Orlando Salido enhances his reputation.  For one thing, people will forever say, “how d’ya like that kid, he fought Salido for his title in only his second pro fight!”, and I like anything that makes people talk like a character from a Mickey Spillane novel.  What’s more, if there wasn’t a conspiracy to punish him for his audacity in attempting to win a title in only his second pro fight, everyone certainly did a good job of giving that impression.  His opponent had clearly made no attempt whatever to make the weight, and more importantly ballooned in size by an absurd 19lbs between the weigh-in and the fight.  Salido then proceeded to combine a mixture of holding, headbutts, and flying elbows with an extravagant reliance on the strategy immortalized by Roy & HG as “the battered sav[1]”.  This failed to elicit even the mildest of rebukes from comedy “referee” Laurence Cole.

To his immense credit, Lomachenko responded as if he were in a boxing match, outworking and outboxing Salido to land more blows at a higher success rate (164 out of 441 for 37% versus 142 out of 645 for just 22%), and badly hurting Salido in the twelfth, but still losing a split decision.  Better still, Lomachenko refused to complain about any of this outrageous treatment, even when heavily goaded by Max Kellerman in the post-fight interview.

Where fighters put nothing meaningful at risk, a fight means nothing[2].  When they do, the fighters ennoble themselves, win or lose.  What’s more, plenty of fighters come back from a loss just as good or stronger.  Plenty of losses are avenged, and even when they are not, the attempt at revenge is often heroic: unlike the movies, in boxing, a sequel is frequently as good as, or even an improvement on, the original (the examples are too numerous to list, but think of Leonard-Hearns 2, or Ali-Frazier 3).  This being so, it is a shame so many good fighters are afraid to break that fragile little egg nestling in the second part of their records.  Here’s hoping a few more live up to the standard set by Vasyl Lomachenko.


[1] Note for Americans: the “sav”, or saveloy, is a highly spiced, bright red sausage, often served fried in batter, which British and Australian people sometimes eat instead of food.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saveloy.

[2] I suspect that a mangled, dim grasp of this important truth is behind many fighters’ obsession with winning what are, in fact, almost meaningless belts and titles.

On Scoring

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For many years I was an occasional boxing fan.  I always enjoyed watching the fights, but I was put off by the fact that I couldn’t understand the scoring system.  In a fight not obviously settled by a knockout I would often have no idea which fighter had won, or even how to begin deciding.   Commentators weren’t much help: they would say vague and contradictory things like “judges like a fighter who keeps moving forward”, or “fighter X may have won the round with that last-minute flurry”, or they’d refer to a fighter “scoring points” with individual punches.

None of this was all that surprising.  Like most armchair fans, I don’t understand all the rules of sports that I watch, and I have long since given up expecting commentators to know any more than I do.  But this wasn’t just about knowing what constitutes a particular example of foul play, or understanding the nuances of strategy.  This was a question about the very aim of the exercise.  If I was to watch the fights more regularly I had to get to grips with this issue: how does a fighter win?  What counts as winning a boxing match?

I decided to do some research, i.e., to Google it and glance casually at the first four or five results before losing interest.  Here, however, this usually reliable technique wasn’t enough.  I didn’t learn much more than what I already knew, viz., that the aim was to “win rounds” by “outboxing” your opponent, and that the winner of a round gets 10 points and the loser 9 or fewer, depending how much he loses by (the so-called “10 Point Must System”).  What I didn’t know, and wanted to learn, was what that meant.

So I dug deeper.  When I finally found something more detailed, what I found was genuinely baffling.

Most writers[1] list four key criteria for judging a boxing match.  They are these:

  1. effective aggressiveness
  2. clean punching
  3. ring generalship
  4. defense

What is “effective aggressiveness”?  One writer[2] says this: “Essentially, judges are supposed to tally the number of punches they see each fighter land (above the waist, on the front or sides of the body or head, with the knuckle of the glove only). In each round the fighter who lands more punches is awarded 10 points.”  But it is obviously not enough to judge only the number of punches.  One fighter might land lots of weak, ineffectual punches, and the other a small number of powerful, effective ones, leaving his opponent staggered.  In a real fight the latter would clearly be “winning” the fight.  So we also have to evaluate punches for how powerful and clean they are, that is, for quality, as well as quantity, by looking for “blows that are delivered upon an opponent that are easily discernable [sic], that inflict perceptible damage, and that land without any unanticipated difficulty or interference.[3]

But there’s more to “effective aggressiveness” than this.  There’s strategy too.  So, “advancing with too much caution or hesitancy, and looking to land one big shot instead of punching in combinations are all symptoms of a rather ineffective strategy, and one that judges are unlikely to reward . . . a hostile behavior must also be accompanied by an intention to achieve a desired result.[4]”  Or, more simply, “the boxer who gets off first, who controls the action while scoring good clean punches is on his way to winning.[5]

Clear so far?  Not to me.  First of all, we now have a mind-boggling seven criteria for deciding which fighter is winning, i.e., which fighter is . . .

  1. Landing a greater number of punches?
  2. Landing more effective punches?
  3. Landing cleaner punches?
  4. Landing more powerful punches?
  5. Evidencing a superior strategy?
  6. Taking the lead?
  7. Controlling the action?

That’s a lot to think about.  It seems even more daunting if we think a bit further about the kinds of sports that are marked by judges.  Ice skaters, divers and gymnasts, for example, perform prepared routines consisting of moves known to the judges in advance, and what’s more they perform individually or in synchronized pairs.  Boxers, by contrast, move around unpredictably and spontaneously, and are competing with one another, so they have to be judged separately but simultaneously: indeed, one fighter’s performance can only be judged by reference to that of the other, because all the criteria above are relative.  You can’t tell who is landing more, or more powerful, or cleaner punches, or who is taking the lead and controlling the action, without evaluating both fighters at once.  No wonder Harold Lederman has a head the size of a prize watermelon.

What’s more, I think there are particular problems with some of these criteria.  Firstly, what does it mean to decide who is landing the more effective punches?  After all, the effect of a punch depends both on the punch and on the punchee.  What if one fighter has an especially tough chin, but lets every punch through?  Even if his defense is hopeless, his opponent’s punches, even powerful ones, might be ineffective.  Should he be credited for having a thick skull?  Secondly, how do we evaluate who is controlling the action, except by reference to the quantity and quality of punches being landed?  And thirdly, who cares about a fighter’s clever strategy if he is getting his clock cleaned?

So there’s an overwhelming volume of unpredictable and poorly defined things to think about.  But there’s a bigger issue even than that.  We hear that “the aggressor who takes the lead, gets off first, scores clean punches both in quantity and with quality, regardless of the direction he is moving, should win the round.[6]”  Once again, this is obvious, and once again it is completely unhelpful.  Of course, if one fighter is dominating the other according to all the parameters, he is winning.  The problem arises when one guy is taking the lead and getting off first, but the other guy is landing a greater number of punches.  Or when the guy getting off first is landing a greater number of punches, but the other guy is landing cleaner and more powerful and effective blows.  Or when one guy is landing blows which are cleaner but less powerful and is taking the lead while his opponent is landing a greater number of punches, and controlling the action.  What do you do then?  Even if we could clarify the meaning of all the considerations listed above, and even if we could find judges with heads like beachballs who were capable of tracking them in real time, there is no system for ranking or weighting them, and therefore no real system of scoring at all.

So much for “effective aggressiveness” and “clean punching”.  What of “ring generalship”?  Let’s look at a definition.

“Ring generalship applies to the fighter who uses skills beyond his punching power to control the action in the ring. He is thinking. He is strategizing while he is fighting, utilizing cleverness, agility, and feinting to keep his opponent off guard. By using footwork and movement, he forces his opponent out of his fight plan. Using subtle tactics, he sets up his opponent for effective combinations. He causes an aggressive fighter to look awkward. He may even cause a boxer to get into a slugfest. He minimizes his opponent’s strengths by controlling the action to suit his own skills.[7]

But I thought we covered “strategy”, “controlling the action” and “effectiveness” under “effective aggressiveness”.  And again, I don’t understand how we evaluate “strategy” or “ring generalship” except by seeing whether it allows a fighter to land a greater number of more powerful punches (or “more effective” punches, if we can decide what that means).  So this seems like a pretty useless criterion.

Something similar goes for “defense”.  So:

“Good defense is averting punches by blocking, bobbing and weaving, good footwork, and lateral movement. These are assets possessed by the skilled fighter. In close rounds, when neither fighter has an edge offensively, good defense could well be the deciding factor.[8]

Again, the two fighters are performing simultaneously and are fighting each other, so you cannot evaluate one without reference to the other.  Offense and defense are therefore two sides of the same coin, and so if neither fighter has an edge offensively it is hard to see how one can have an edge defensively.

Of course, this is by no means the end of the story.  There are lots of other issues around scoring boxing matches which fans get very exercised about.  Here are a few:

Hometown decisions.  I’m sure I don’t need to explain this one.

“Champion’s decisions”.  For some reason there is often a feeling that you can’t take someone’s title off him without beating him “decisively”, rather than just beating him.  This idea obviously makes no sense[9], but titleholders often say it and judges sometimes appear to be influenced by it.

Promoters influencing judges.  Since boxing completely lacks any kind of credible organizing and legislative body, the appointment of judges is decided by promoters, who also cover judges’ expenses.  These can run pretty high if the judges stay in, say, a decent hotel in Vegas with a better-than-average winelist.  It isn’t hard to imagine that such judges might be more amenable to delivering a result the promoter prefers.

Treatment of fouls.  Different referees treat fouls differently, sometimes in the context of a single fight.  Further, since the only penalty available to the referee is the deduction of a point, and almost all rounds are won by a single point (i.e., by 10-9), the decision to penalize a foul effectively cancels out an entire successful round.  The sanction being so extreme, most fouls are simply ignored, or met with no greater sanction than a meaningless “warning”.  Absurdly, the effect of this is that the rules favour dirty fighters.

Elimination of even rounds.  I always wondered why judges don’t score more rounds even, especially early in the fight before the relative skill or superior conditioning of one or other fighter starts to tell.  But it turns out the reason is simple: they are told not to.  So, we read, “even in a closely contested round, there will always be cues to help you reward the round to the most deserving fighter.  Therefore, if you can avoid scoring a round even, it is often best to do so.[10]”  Or, more bluntly, “Judges should avoid scoring a round even.[11]”  This is just bizarre: it means judges really ought to score the fight wrongly, by looking for a reason to award a round otherwise thought even.

This is a particular problem in light of the next issue, namely:

10-9 covers too wide a range.  In the words of one expert, “[a] round where the winner of the round maintains anywhere from a close margin to a definite margin will end up 10-9.[12]”  So round one might be almost (or, in light of the injunction against scoring rounds even, perhaps exactly) even, but the judges give it to fighter A.  The second round is won by a “definite” margin by fighter B.  And now the judges have the fight even, although almost no one watching the fight would agree.  This being so, I submit that a round is probably too long a period to serve as the unit of scoring.

Treatment of knockdowns.  Everyone knows that if a fighter scores a knockdown, the round has to be scored 10-8.  Well, everyone knows wrong: one fighter can totally dominate a round then get hit by a single firm but not decisive punch, and it would be totally absurd for him to lose the round by two whole points (remember that this means he could win two other entire rounds by a “definite margin” and still be only level).  Judges don’t have to score such rounds 10-8, but they always do, because it’s much easier to do, and much easier to justify, in part because, well, that’s what everyone always does.  The problem is magnified by the fact that, absurdly, it is up to the referee to decide whether a genuine knockdown has been scored, and the judges have to score accordingly regardless of whether they think the fighter was really floored.  It could easily happen that a judge thinks fighter A wins the round easily, slipped to the canvas halfway through, but then feels he has to score the round 10-8 to fighter B.

It is a shame to have to say it, but we could go on.  The scoring of boxing matches is an utter travesty, because the whole system is idiotic to the point of incoherence.  More depressing still, this travesty is obviously deliberate: the vaguer the criteria of success, the easier it is for interested parties to influence the outcome, whether to favour a particular fighter or simply to set up a lucrative rematch.  And we all know of plenty of examples of absurd results in boxing.

Incredibly, even the so-called experts acknowledge the problem:

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, to actually count the number of hits and misses, evaluate the effect (on both fighters), and still give your undivided attention to the continuing action. Many times, in action-packed fights, a good judge must call on his experience to make an instinctive, spontaneous evaluation of the number and types of punches and their off-setting values against each other and score accordingly.[13]

Which just takes us back to where we started: forget objective criteria, just give the round to the one that “outboxes” the other, whatever that means.

So here’s my proposal for scoring at boxing matches, which seems as good as anyone else’s.  When in doubt about the result of a fight, give the decision to the girl with the biggest tits.


[1] Here I rely on just a few websites, which is of course unfair.  On the other hand, they were the best I could find.  If you know of a better source, please let me know.

[4] http://neutralcorneronline.com/how-to-score-a-fight/.  The presence in this passage of the word “unlikely” is already unsettling.

[9] Though it may be one reason why fighters value otherwise meaningless belts and titles so highly.

On Safety

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In a previous post I argued that boxing isn’t really a sport: essentially because a boxing match is a fight, and sport is what we do instead of fighting.  I think this is important, because it informs some of the most important questions about boxing, namely:

  1. Should it be banned?
  2. Can it be made safer?
  3. If so, should it be?

Being repeatedly punched in the head over a period of years is not safe. Sugar Ray Robinson ended up with Alzheimer’s.  Joe Louis wound up suffering strokes and paranoid schizophrenia.  Muhammad Ali has Parkinson’s.  And they might be the three greatest fighters who ever lived.  In each individual case reasons are sometimes given to think that boxing was not to blame: Louis was a cocaine addict, and the afflictions of the others may have had genetic roots.  Perhaps.  But you don’t have to look far to find lots of other fighters who ended up with one or other variant of dementia pugilistica.  And of course many fighters have died in the ring, or suffered brain injuries that changed their lives for ever.

Point this out to a boxing enthusiast, especially one who makes his living from it, and he will usually come back with one or more of the following arguments.

ARGUMENT 1: The boxers are over 21; they know what they are letting themselves in for;  they aren’t hurting anyone but themselves; why can’t they do what the hell they like?

It is this argument – essentially John Stuart Mill’s hoary old “Harm Principle”, with which philosophy undergraduates are still menaced – which sometimes moves people to describe boxing as “the libertarian sport”.  And if you really are a libertarian, maybe you’ll accept it – though if you do, you should also recognize that this sort of argument can be used to “justify” any form of self-harm or risk-taking, including some we might not want our fellow citizens to get up to, such as recreational drug use, driving without a seatbelt, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, duelling and cycling down motorways.  But the reality is that boxing’s libertarianism only goes so far, and certainly does not extend to the extreme thesis that people never need protecting from themselves.  Some of boxing’s keenest advocates are also among the quickest (and loudest) to complain that someone should do something when they think fighters are past it and shouldn’t be licensed: and commissions often do take away a fighter’s licence if he isn’t capable of performing, for reasons of age or infirmity.  In some jurisdictions boxers have to have annual tests, often including brain scans, before their authorisation to fight is renewed.  This being so, we are essentially asking the medics to decide who can box and who can’t: and in that case, what happens if the medics say it isn’t safe for anyone?  Well, that’s exactly what some medics do say, including the British Medical Association, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and such eminent figures as John Hardy, chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at University College London’s Institute of Neurology.

ARGUMENT 2: If it was banned boxing would just go underground.  Keeping it legal is safer.

This is a practical sort of an argument rather than an ethical one, but I think it fails on both counts.  Increased safety is not a reason to sanction something under the law.  Lots of things that are illegal would probably be safer if they were legal, but they are still banned in lots of places, if not everywhere.  Slavery, for example, would doubtless be less dangerous if it were legalized, as would incest, cockfighting, dogfighting & bear-baiting, and (perhaps boxing’s closest relative) duelling.  And speaking practically, banning something doesn’t simply result in the activity continuing as before but “underground”.  While they may not have died out completely, all of these phenomena are now significantly less widespread following their banning (when was the last time you heard of someone fighting a duel?).

ARGUMENT 3: Kids learn lots of valuable things from boxing, like self-confidence, respect for themselves and others, the importance of physical fitness, and discipline.

There are lots of other ways of gaining self-confidence and self-respect that don’t involve stoving anyone’s face in (or their returning the favour).  What is more, you only have to look at a few retired fighters to see how fit, disciplined, respectful and confident they are.  Indeed, there is some evidence that their mid-life misbehaviour and the mental illness that often causes it might be linked to brain damage from a career in boxing.

ARGUMENT 4: Boxing is the only sport accessible to members of lower socioeconomic classes.  Banning it would hurt the poor.

There are three problems with this argument.  Firstly, it isn’t true.  East Africa has no facilities or money at all, and still produces Olympic distance runners; Jamaica barely has enough to buy steroids, and still produces essentially all the world’s great sprinters; absolutely every child in every slum in India and Pakistan plays cricket; and absolutely every child in every slum in South America plays soccer.  Secondly, it is obviously flawed, in that one could argue on the same basis for the legalization of mugging and drug dealing as the only “business opportunities” open to the poor.  Finally, even if the argument were valid, I suggest it should be regarded less as a defence of boxing than as an indictment of everything else.

ARGUMENT 5: Other sports are also dangerous, and many have higher injury rates, including such popular sports as NFL, motorsport, and wrestling.  But no one is calling for them to be banned.

One obvious response is that boxing is different, because it differs from NFL, etc., in that the aim is to injure one’s opponent so badly as to render him insensible.  Far from seeing this as an objection, many enthusiasts turn it into a virtue.  OK, they say, so boxers sometimes seriously injure each other.  It’s part of the sport, so get over it, you big girl’s blouse.  Stop trying to ruin it for us real men.  Take away the brain damage, and you take away the point.

There is another sport where people used to think along similar lines, namely, motorsport.  According to Formula 1’s official website, between 1965 and 1973, an F1 driver who raced for five years had a two-thirds chance of being killed in a crash.  It was, above all, three-time champion Jackie Stewart, whose career coincided exactly with this period, who demanded mandatory seat-belt usage, full face helmets, dedicated fire crews and medical facilities and modernization of tracks to include safety barriers and run-off areas.  For this, he was roundly abused by drivers and journalists, most notably by Denis Jenkinson, who described him as a “milk and water driver”.

Jenkinson was a dinosaur and an idiot.  Stewart won the argument so completely that F1 is now unthinkable without the safety measures he fought for, and plenty others besides.  F1 cars travel at up to 200mph: they flip over, catch fire, crash into one another and fly into barriers at all angles.  Yet via the use of modern technology drivers are well-protected from this infinite variety of possible and dramatic disasters.  It is almost twenty years since an F1 driver died in his car.  And it is hard to imagine anyone suggesting we should go back to the olden days.

(One particular example from boxing provides an interesting contrast.  In September 1991, eighteen years after Stewart retired, Chris Eubank knocked out Michael Watson at White Hart Lane, one of London’s biggest soccer stadiums.  Watson collapsed: but there was no ambulance or paramedic at the event, and no oxygen was available.  As a result, he spent a year in intensive care, during most of which he could neither speak nor hear, and six more years in a wheelchair.  Watson later sued the British Boxing Board of Control and won, meaning the BBBoC had to sell its HQ to pay compensation.  The point is not just that the BBBoC had failed to protect their fighter: more surprisingly, they had also failed to protect themselves, by taking out insurance.  This degree of negligence would be breathtaking in any sport: in one with the obvious dangers of boxing it can only be explained by complete and utter idiocy.)

Could boxing be made significantly safer, as F1 has?  Well, how about the following ideas for a start:

1.    Introduce pneumatic gloves.  Each glove would have a little reservoir with a valve that allows air to be blasted out and sucked in again immediately afterwards, so the glove deflates on impact and then reflates straight away for the next punch.
2.    Insist on protection for the head, the entire torso and forearms, as well as the usual crotch protector and mouthguard.
3.    Put accelerometers in the gloves and impact sensors in the body & head protectors.

I would be surprised if the impact of a punch could not be dramatically reduced using pneumatics, just as the impact of a car crash can be reduced by airbags.  And the ability to fit sensors into the protective gear might just solve another of boxing’s great problems, namely, that of scoring.  Points would be awarded for punches landed, according to accuracy (measured by the sensors in the body & head protectors) and, crucially, power (measured by the accelerometers in the gloves).

All of this is perfectly do-able.  Pneumatic gloves of the kind described are not a fantasy: indeed, a patent for something along these lines already exists[1].  Taekwondo fighters wear torso and forearm protectors with exactly the sort of sensor technology I suggest, and anyone who thinks this impairs their punching power or agility, or the quality of the fights, is encouraged to take it up with a taekwondo fighter.

One other point needs addressing.  Protection and pneumatic gloves may reduce the impact of a blow, but won’t protect against all damage.  In particular, they won’t prevent the whiplash effect of a firm punch, knocking a  boxer’s head back in that familiar and sickening way.  Well, let’s look again at F1.  No one suffers greater whiplash than a F1 driver in a crash.  That’s why the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device was developed: a sort of plastic collar that spreads the impact of a crash from the head and neck to the much stronger upper body muscles.  The F1 HANS device is designed to deal with the case where a car stops suddenly and the driver’s head keeps moving forward while his body halts or moves backwards, whereas of course a punch forces a boxer’s head backwards.  No problem: just turn the collar around.

Boxing has been changed many times on safety grounds.  Once upon a time fights lasted until one fighter was knocked down and couldn’t get up.  Fighters fought with bare knuckles.  Then came pre-fight medicals, referees, rounds, weight categories, gloves (with handwraps), mouthguards, the standing 8 count, and limiting fights to a maximum of 15 rounds, later reduced to 12.  Weigh-ins were moved to the day before the fight to avoid fighters competing in a drained or dehydrated state (though it is debatable whether or not this helps).  Sanctioning bodies now require the presence of doctors at ringside.  Fighters in certain jurisdictions, including the UK, New York & Nevada, must have an annual MRI scan to check for brain damage.

Don’t believe in my ideas for making boxing safe?  OK, here’s an alternative  approach that’s really hard to argue with: give it to Google.  Google have done some amazing things.  They have made the web manageable, made internet search pay, photographed every street in the world, and invented a car that can drive itself.  You think they couldn’t solve a little problem like making boxing safe?

The problem, I think, is this: effectively this would do to boxing what was done to duelling to turn it into fencing.  That is: you take a fight, and turn it into a sport.  Fencing isn’t duelling, and for the same reasons anything constructed along the lines of what is described above (with the protection and the sensors) isn’t boxing.  Argument 5 is right, at least in that the danger and the damage are intrinsic to boxing (and duelling) in a way they are not intrinsic to sports, even motorsport (this is why F1’s safety measures have not diminished it in any way).  However, uncomfortable as it may be for us fans, I think this means we have to concede that, firstly, because it isn’t a sport, boxing simply can’t be made safe.  And I think it also means that the arguments generally given in favour of continuing to permit it are pretty weak.

Podcast Review – The Queensberry Rules

Like most other podcasts based on the “two-guys-bullshitting-in-a-bar” model, the podcast of popular blog TQBR betrays little sign of structure or preparation.  And like every other podcast hosted on BlogTalkRadio, production values are on the low side of charmingly amateurish.  For example: the trumpet-heavy opening music is far louder than the participants’ voices, so that if the unwary listener allows his iPod to take him from one episode to another without adjusting the volume control he risks having his eardrums funkily perforated.   Further, significant chunks of the show are devoted to discussions of whether or not Skype is going to work, and whether one or other participant is going to be able to join. 

The hosts – Patrick Connor from the http://www.queensberry-rules.com blog itself and James Foley from fellow-traveller blog http://www.badlefthook.com – make an initially callow, almost teenage impression: Connor in particular suffers from a heavy self-consciousness, and both seem afraid of appearing to be anything other than deeply serious.  On the other hand, their analyses of fights historic and forthcoming are sensible and detailed, and once they loosen up they display impressive knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for their subject.  Just don’t expect many laughs.

Is Boxing a Sport?

Every competitive sport is a metaphorical fight. This is illustrated clearly when people talk about sports. Any sportsman who has been out of action for a while with injury is ring-rusty. A score against the run of play might be a bodyblow. A team struggling with superior opposition is on the ropes. Two great tennis players go toe-to-toe. Commentators give a blow by blow account. A decisive play is a knockout. If your opponent runs out of time to press home his advantage, you’re saved by the bell. Most obviously of all, someone who loses gets beaten, and if they lose badly, thrashed. And so on.

Yet the opposite is rarely the case. Boxing commentators rarely refer to good punches as home runs or touchdowns (Chris Arreola once said “in boxing, you can hit a ten run homerun in the last round”: which is another way of saying boxing is nothing like baseball). Why is this?

In any sport, the aim of the exercise itself is arbitrary, and not meaningful outside its context. Kicking a ball into a net or between two posts, knocking a baseball out of the park, running around a track or riding a bicycle around France means nothing much except as part of the relevant contest.

But boxing is not like this. The aim of boxing is not arbitrary, and does not lack consequences. The aim of boxing is so to damage one’s opponent that he becomes incapable of defending himself. This is why boxing is not metaphorical. Two men really do go toe to toe and dish out the punishment until one can fight no more.

Sport is what you do instead of fighting. A boxing match is not a sporting event. It’s a fight.

Yes there are rules, structure and a referee and judges. But all of that is true of duelling, too. And duelling isn’t a sport either. A duel is a fight, like a boxing match.

I think this has a number of interesting consequences. I’ll write about them another time.

Book Review – Sonny Liston: The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights, by Paul Gallender

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Paul Gallender is an angry writer. He is angry because of the appalling treatment he believes Sonny Liston has received at the hands of history and the media. “Sonny Liston – The Real Story Behind the Ali-Liston Fights” is his immensely detailed and mostly enjoyable attempt to redress the balance. So, according to Gallender, Liston was, among other things . . . .

. . . a highly intelligent man, who merely suffered from a lack of education. Here we may note that Liston spent time in prison as a young man after committing a series of muggings. Unfortunately, he chose to wear the same distinctive yellow shirt each time, winning him the title of “Yellow Shirt Bandit”. I’m not sure this can plausibly be put down to a lack of education.

. . . a loving, caring husband to Geraldine, who obviously adored him, and a man who loved children. A sensitive Gallender mostly spares the reader the trifling details of Liston’s endless & notorious infidelities, and only briefly mentions that the Listons adopted a boy from Sweden, something made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the boy was almost certainly Sonny’s illegitimate son (if you don’t think it extraordinary, consider what your wife might have done under the same circumstances).

. . . a charming, witty conversationalist, always smiling and joking in his private life. The only reason he looked so grumpy in the ring was that once had his jaw broken when punched while laughing.

. . . only on the most distant of terms with organised criminals – though the reader cannot help but be impressed how many of the warm endorsements of Liston come from close business associates with names like “Vinny”, “Fingers” or “The Hat” (Frank Sinatra himself spoke very highly of Sonny, if you know what I mean).

. . . in possession of an enormous penis.

In reality, Liston was no saint. He had a lifelong problem with drink, drugs and bad company, possibly right up to his last moments (he was found dead with a needle in his arm and traces of heroin in his system: rumour suggests that this had been caused by people on whose behalf he had been collecting debts). Besides associating with racketeers and gangsters he was, at times, a violent criminal and a drug dealer.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Gallender for writing mostly in whitewash rather than ink. With a passion & thoroughness bordering on obsession he compels the reader to admire a man whose roots are so obscure that no one knows when he was born or even how many siblings he had, but rose to become heavyweight champion of the world – at a time when there was only one such champion, and it really meant something. Equally admirable is the tremendous patience and determination Liston displayed in waiting so long for previous heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson to give him a shot at the title. The reason Patterson gave for his refusal, namely the extent of Liston’s underworld connections, was entirely bogus. For one thing, this argument was propagated not by Patterson himself but by his trainer & manager, Cus D’Amato, who eventually lost his licence due to his own connections to organised crime. (Incidentally, we still lack a proper* biography of D’Amato, one of the most interesting, complex people in all of sport, never mind boxing: a project Gallender could usefully consider.) And the real reason for Patterson’s reluctance to fight was that he was terrified. At any rate, Gallender makes it clear that whatever the reality of his life outside boxing, Liston was a magnificent physical specimen, a tremendous fighter, and – when his time finally came – truly a great champion.

What’s more, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the way he lost the title. Forced to quit during his first fight against Ali mainly because of a terrible shoulder injury (though admittedly also because he was undertrained, having underestimated Ali’s speed, power and chin), Liston lost his chance of a fair rematch when Ali developed a hernia at just the wrong moment. When they finally met, Liston went down in the first round following a notorious “phantom punch” which no one saw. Ali himself later told stories about the crucial punch being so fast that everyone blinked and missed it, but while Liston was on the canvas Ali stood over his prone form – a moment made immortal in Neil Leifer’s photograph – reportedly shouting “Get up and fight, sucker! No one’s going to believe this!”. The true story of this event remains maddeningly unavailable, but Gallender’s theory is that Liston’s family were being held hostage until he hit the canvas, and that both the Mafia and the Black Muslims were involved. Whatever we think of this suggestion, what is clear is that hardly anyone thinks the result was on the level, and remarks made by Sonny himself later in life seem to confirm as much. Liston fought on, but never regained the highest levels of the sport, and never got another crack at the title before meeting his premature and undignified end.

While plainly written and pedestrian at times, Gallender’s book wins on thoroughness & compassion. Liston’s reputation deserves a reappraisal, and this is an excellent, if one-sided start.

*According to my extensive research – which means I both Googled it and looked on Wikipedia – D’Amato has inspired a “stage and screenplay” and a “biographical novel” (check it out at http://www.ConfusingtheEnemy.com), but not a biography in the usual sense.

Podcast Review – Ring Theory

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A couple of overarticulate, white smartalecs reflect at length on the efforts of a bunch of barely literate blacks and Latinos as they try to turn each others’ brains into blancmange.  Endlessly mocking colleagues in boxing journalism – one is memorably described as “a pig’s head on a stick, smothered in cheese” – they are as likely to analyse a writer’s mangled grammar or a commentator’s mispronunciation of a name as a fighter’s jab or weak chin.  It is, in other words, immensely entertaining and thoroughly recommended.